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Newt Gingrich on the Attack; House Fire Kills Five

Aired December 27, 2011 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: It is 10:00 here on the East Coast. Good evening, everyone.

We begin tonight "Keeping Them Honest" on the campaign trail, where a 5-year-old newsletter is tonight raising new charges of flip- flopping by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Since entering the race back in May, Gingrich has become one of the harshest critics of the health care reforms his opponent Mitt Romney signed into law five years ago as governor of Massachusetts.

Take a look.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Your plan essentially is one more big government, bureaucratic, high-cost system, which candidly could not have been done by any other state because no other state had a Medicare program as lavish as yours, and no other state got as much money from the federal government under the Bush administration for this experiment. So there's a lot as big government behind Romneycare. Not as much as Obamacare, but a heck of a lot more than your campaign is admitting.


COOPER: Big government, high costs, two of Gingrich's favorite slams in the Romney reforms.

He also like to hammer the centerpiece of the Massachusetts law, which was the individual mandate that requires all residents above a certain income level to buy health insurance or pay a fine. The idea is controversial, but not so long ago many conservatives including Gingrich supported the idea.

Here's what he wrote in April of 2006 in a newsletter called "Newt Notes. This was just after Massachusetts enacted its health care law -- quote -- "The most exciting development of the past few weeks," Gingrich wrote, "is what is happening in Massachusetts. The health bill that Governor Romney signed into law this month has tremendous potential to effect major change in the American health system."

He went on to say: "We agree entirely with Governor Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100 percent insurance coverage for all Americans." What is more, Gingrich applauded the individual mandate in the law -- quote -- "We also believe strongly," he wrote, "that personal responsibility is vital to creating a 21st century intelligent health system. Individuals who can afford to purchase health insurance and simply choose not to place an unnecessary burden on a system that's on the verge of collapse. These free-riders undermine the entire health system by placing the onus of responsibility on taxpayers."

Now Gingrich did include some caveats about the Massachusetts law and suggested some tweaks to the nuts and bolts, but he still gave its basic principles a glowing thumbs up. This wasn't a new position for him either. Here's what he said on "Meet the Press" back in 1993.


GINGRICH: I am for people, individuals, exactly like automobile insurance, individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance. And I'm prepared to vote for a voucher system which will give individuals on a sliding scale a government subsidy, so ensure that everyone as individuals have health insurance.


COOPER: That was in 1993. Here he is in 2008 still supporting in the bluntest of language individual mandates.


GINGRICH: You have got to require everybody to either have insurance or to post a bond. But the fastest growing section of the uninsured is people over $75,000 income who are making a calculated gamble that if they get sick, you will take care of them. And I think that's just immoral.


COOPER: Immoral, he said.

Now, the Gingrich newsletter that surfaced from 2006 is giving his opponents new ammunition with the Iowa caucuses just a few weeks away. In a statement today, a Gingrich spokesperson said -- and I quote -- "This is old news and it has been covered already. Newt previously supported a mandate for health insurance and changed his mind after seeing its effects. The real question is why Mitt, the Massachusetts moderate, won't admit that health insurance mandates don't work."

"Keeping Them Honest," though as recently as this past May just after entering the Republican race, Gingrich was still backing the idea of an individual mandate. Here's what he said on "Meet the Press."


GINGRICH: I agree that all of us have a responsibility to help pay for health care. And I think that there are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy. I have said consistently we ought to have some requirement, you either have health insurance or you post a bond, or in some way, you indicate you're going to be held accountable.

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": But that is the individual mandate, is it not?

GINGRICH: It's a variation on it.


COOPER: Well, that was in May. Apparently whatever made him change his mind on the issue wasn't on his radar yet. But by October Gingrich was singing a much different tune, scrambling to distance himself from the very idea he talked about.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.

GINGRICH: That's not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.

ROMNEY: Yes, we got it from you, and you got it from the Heritage Foundation and from you.


GINGRICH: Wait a second. What you just said is not true. You did not get that from me. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.

ROMNEY: And you never supported them?

GINGRICH: I agree with them, but I'm just saying, what you said to this audience just now plain wasn't true.


ROMNEY: OK. Let me ask, have you supported in the past an individual mandate?

GINGRICH: I absolutely did with the Heritage Foundation against Hillarycare.

ROMNEY: You did support an individual mandate?

ROMNEY: Oh, OK. That's what I'm saying. We got the idea from you and the Heritage Foundation.

GINGRICH: OK. A little broader.


(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: How does Gingrich explain first supporting individual mandates and then doing a 180? In today's statement, his spokesman said Gingrich changed his mind.

Earlier this month on "THE SITUATION ROOM," Gingrich called it a mistake.


GINGRICH: In retrospect, we were wrong, because what happens, once you go to a mandate, you have turned so much power over the government that the politicians rather than the doctors end up defining health care. And so, it was a mistake.


COOPER: We invited Gingrich to be on the program tonight, and he declined, said he didn't have time.

In Iowa tonight, this is certainly crunch time for the Republican presidential contenders. Wolf Blitzer is there. He talked to Newt Gingrich earlier today in "THE SITUATION ROOM." He joins me now.

Gingrich spent today playing a bit of defense on this, didn't he, Wolf?


He realizes that there seems to be a contradictions. He acknowledges it. He says that his position has changed. When I pointed out to him that even this year he seemed to be expressing some support for a health care mandate, if you will, he offered this exchange with me. Listen to this.


BLITZER: I think it was in may -- you seemed to still, at that time, be supporting some form of mandates.

GINGRICH: Well, notice the phrase here. I think it would be great to find a way to get every American covered. I think that would be better for the country. Can you do that without a mandate?

And part of what John Goodman does is he creates a pool, so if you don't want to buy insurance, you're not compelled to. Your share of the tax break would go into a charity pool. If something happens to you, the charity pool takes care of you. And there are ways to do it that you don't infringe on constitutional freedom.


BLITZER: Still, Anderson, there's no doubt this is a very, very sensitive issue for Newt Gingrich right now because he sees his position over the years going back as you point out into the early '90s, when he was opposed to Hillary Clinton's health care plan and at the time he supported mandates, just as the conservative Heritage Foundation did at that time -- there's no doubt his position has changed over these years most recently.

So it's a sensitive subject, especially out here on the campaign trail in Iowa, where President Obama's health care law is not very popular with these conservative Republican caucus-goers.

COOPER: Right. Not necessarily what he wants to be spending the day talking about so close to the caucuses. He also had some interesting comments today in your interview about another one of his Republican rivals. I want to show our viewers what he had to say. Take a look.


GINGRICH: You look at Ron Paul's total record of systemic avoidance of reality, and you look at his newsletters, and then you look at his ads. His ads are about as accurate as his newsletter.

BLITZER: Now, if he were to get the Republican nomination --

GINGRICH: He won't.

BLITZER: -- let's say he were. Could you vote for him?


I think Ron Paul's views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American.


COOPER: It's pretty tough stuff saying he would not under any circumstances vote for Ron Paul if he did in fact get the nomination.

Is Gingrich still saying that he is running a positive campaign and taking the high road, and is he's saying that these are just understandable responses to attacks by Ron Paul in this case?

BLITZER: He was very tough on Ron Paul today in this interview. I was surprised as tough as he was.

I think he's the first Republican candidate to flatly say he would not be able to vote for Ron Paul if Ron Paul were to get the Republican nomination. Ron Paul is doing very well here in Iowa. He might win the Iowa caucus a week from today. So I was surprised by that.

He will say he's just reporting the facts, he's just learning more about Ron Paul, and he's not going to negative, he's just being honest about it, that he's being above-board. But he's getting tougher. He's being hammered. If you are here in Iowa even for a day or two, you see commercials ads on television, and the negative attacks on Newt Gingrich never stop from these other campaigns.

And now he's beginning to feel it. And he's responding. He was pretty tough on Mitt Romney today as well, although not by any means as tough as he was on Ron Paul. COOPER: Yes, just one week left to the caucuses.

Wolf, appreciate it. Thanks very much, great interview today.

Let's bring in our panel, political contributor and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen and Republican strategist and former Gingrich spokesman Rich Galen.

Rich, how big of an issue are these memos where Newt Gingrich complimented Romney's health care plan back in Massachusetts?

RICH GALEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think they're very big, much bigger than the court filings on his divorce and that kind of business, because it's very difficult for a candidate on the road, one of his opponents to talk about that.

This is right in everybody's wheelhouse on the end of the pond, the conservative end of the pond that Newt is swimming in along with Perry and Bachmann and Santorum and, to some extent, Paul. I expect that they will hammer him -- forget about the ads. They will take this to every pizza place in Iowa.


COOPER: Let me just push back on that. What's wrong with him saying, look, I thought maybe it was a good idea, we saw how it actually got implemented, and I don't believe in it anymore, I changed my mind?

Isn't that kind of refreshing as opposed to kind of doing what a lot of candidates seem to do, which is say that it's not actually changing their mind and go through laborious explanations why it's not?

GALEN: It would be refreshing if it were not always being carried -- or parried by his campaign of his campaign doing the equivalent of nanny nanny boo-boo by calling Mitt Romney names.

That's just childish. But on the one hand his campaign is trying to hammer Romney for saying essentially what you just said, that he tried it and he found it didn't work, and on the other side saying, well, because I'm Newt Gingrich, when I change my mind it's because I'm smart and I figured it out.

COOPER: Hilary, do you agree it's a big deal for Gingrich?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think it is a big deal for Gingrich for some of the reasons that Rich said, but also because he is trying to convince people that Mitt Romney is not trustworthy.

And every time he tries to do that, something else comes out where he himself has switched his position to the point where you really never know what's going to come out of his mouth. You cannot be sort of the slow, steady conservative alternative to Mitt Romney if you have all of the same faults that Mitt Romney has, only you just have them from the -- a more conservative perspective.

So I think that Gingrich's only shot here is to really wound Romney in a fundamental way, but the more that this stuff comes out about him, the tougher it is. But it is so important that people understand that what's happening in this Republican primary is that these guys are freaking out about the fact that, oh, my God, we might get caught actually wanting to help Americans have health insurance.

You know, hello? Most people actually want health insurance. How dare they go out acting like this is the worst thing that could ever possibly happen. And I think that when it comes to a general election, President Obama, it doesn't matter if it's Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, he's going to wipe the floor with them because actually people want health care.


GALEN: I want to watch that floor wiping when we get there, but let just me say quickly, Anderson, I just turned 65, so I'm on Medicare, so I'm out of this conversation.


ROSEN: You are. You're right. You're protected.

COOPER: As you know, Hilary, it's not just -- they're not saying people shouldn't have health insurance or health care. It's a question of what the government role in it should be.

ROSEN: Well, it is. And Newt Gingrich stepped right in it because he used to -- the Republican conservative line is that these are all free marketeers, but he unveiled today the real reason that it's important to have more universal coverage, because he actually called them free riders, people who aren't willing to pay into a system for health care or aren't willing to live with some mandates.

They're free riders, because, as we all know, the system ends up paying for everybody and those who don't participate, you know, get the biggest benefit.

COOPER: Rich, I want to ask you. Just before our show tonight, moments before our show tonight, Rick Perry, he's always said he's pro-life, except in cases of rape, incest or in the health of the mother. But he just told an Iowa crowd this evening he now opposes abortion in all those cases as well.

What do you make of that?

GALEN: He didn't say life of the mother. He said the first two.

COOPER: In the first two. What do you make of that?


GALEN: Well, Romney -- I'm sorry -- Perry is -- it was Rick Perry, right? Yes. He's been running ads proclaiming himself to be the purest of the evangelical conservatives in the race, and maybe he is. And this is just another step along that way. The conservative side of the equation in Iowa is being split and split and split.

And I think Romney may be making a little headway. I think Santorum's making a lot of headway. I don't think Bachmann's going to do much. But every one of those votes -- every time somebody decides they want to go to Perry or a Santorum, that comes right out of Newt's hide.

And I think that's one of the reasons we're seeing this drop. Perry is not going to be the nominee either. So the fact that this is probably playing better in Texas than it is in southeastern Iowa...


ROSEN: But this is Perry's last stand.

COOPER: How does Gingrich have to do in Iowa, Hilary?

ROSEN: Well, he has to do well. He doesn't have to win, but he has to at least come in I think second to stay in this. But, you know, we're going to go into New Hampshire in a week, after Iowa, and then South Carolina a week later, Florida a week after that.

Gingrich is doing very well in South Carolina and Florida right now. But the primaries tend to have a sort of momentum factor. And people have a lot of expectations for Gingrich essentially as the viable anti-Romney candidate. If Ron Paul ends up winning Iowa, I frankly think that Iowa gets dismissed and it all just moves to the next three caucuses.


GALEN: We will be there again in four years, I think, because it's just what we do.

But this reminds me very much of the Thompson campaign four years ago, Hilary, of which I was a member, where we came in third, just barely beating out John McCain. It wasn't quite bad enough to drop out then, which I think might have made life a little bit easier. We skipped New Hampshire and went right to South Carolina. We didn't do as well there as we wanted. So, that was the end of it for us. And I would suspect that's the route that Gingrich might take as well.


ROSEN: Gingrich is raising a lot of money right now and he has money. Obviously, Mitt Romney has money. I think coming out of Iowa, Anderson, the real question is what happens to Rick Perry, what happens to Rick Santorum? Those are candidates who might have still some extra support, still some extra resources and a base to deliver to either Gingrich or Romney.

(CROSSTALK) GALEN: Iowa doesn't pick out winners, but it does identify losers.


Rich Galen, appreciate it. Thanks for being on.

As we said, the Iowa caucus one week from today. We're going to have the results, analysis. Our coverage on that night begins at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. That's Tuesday night, January 3 on CNN.

Let us know what you think. We're on Facebook, Google+. Add us to your circles. Follow me on Twitter @AndersonCooper. I will be tweeting tonight.

Just ahead, you may know that tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized against their will or without their consent right here in the United States back in the 20th century. It's certainly a shameful chapter in our history. But tonight, we look into something you may not know, the refusal by states to compensate those victims. Our Elizabeth Cohen interviews victims of this unimaginable horror.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: The state of South Carolina has said they're sorry. Is that enough?



COOPER: More on his story tonight.

Also ahead, a deadly blaze that left experienced firefighters shaken. They could not save three young girls or their grandparents from the flames, the latest on the investigation and what caused that fire.



COOPER: Tonight, a report on a really disturbing chapter in our history, one that's a lot more recent than you might think.

Did you know that at one point in the United States, more than half the states had forced sterilization laws? We're talking about eugenics, a word which is obviously typically associated with Nazi Germany. But there was a large eugenics movement in America before and after World War II.

And sterilizations continued in some states well into the 1970s. Tense of thousands of Americans who were deemed unfit to reproduce were operated on against their will or without their consent. Some of those victims are still alive today and many want justice. So far, all they have gotten is a handful of official apologies. One state, North Carolina, promised nearly a decade ago to compensate the victims. But years later, we have discovered those victims are still waiting.

Elizabeth Cohen has more.


HOLT; At the time, I couldn't do nothing about it.

COHEN: October 22, 1968. Charles Holt was 19 at the time, living in an institution for boys in Butner, North Carolina, when his life was drastically changed without his consent.

HOLT: They sent me to (INAUDIBLE) hospital and then they just pushed me in a room and she gave me a second of gas and I just went off to sleep. Then, when I woke up from it, I noticed something was wrong. Then they told me what they done. And I was -- I wasn't a happy camper.

COHEN: What they had done was surgery, a vasectomy to make him sterile. But why? It turns out the order came from the state, which said he was feeble-minded and unworthy of having children.

HOLT: I wanted to be -- to be just like any other young man, to try to have a family and have some kids that I could call my own. And it -- it happened that way.

COHEN: Charles Holt wasn't alone. In fact, his story is only one representing a shameful chapter in American history.

From 1907 through the 1970s, more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized because they had -- quote -- "unfit human traits." It was called eugenics. The goal? Breed out those considered to be a burden on the rest of society and make -- quote -- "better human beings tomorrow" -- 33 states had eugenics programs at one time or another supported by some of the nation's most respected doctors and social workers.

Even the Supreme Court approved it. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in one 1927 case: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

In North Carolina, anyone, a parent, teacher, a neighbor, could ask the state eugenics board to have someone sterilized. Some victims were developmentally disabled, living in institutions. Records show others were living at home, forced to go under the surgeon's knife because they were paupers or because they were blind or deaf or had syphilis.

(on camera): You could be sterilized if you were sexually promiscuous.

CHARMAINE FULLER COOPER, N.C. JUSTICE FOR STERILIZATION VICTIMS: Or if you paralyzed or not physically attractive, they have a skin disorder, this person is not fit to reproduce. COHEN (voice-over): The state of North Carolina has tasked Charmaine Fuller Cooper to uncover this frightening past.

FULLER COOPER: The first time last year that I actually had to read an actual eugenics board record of an individual patient case file, I literally sat at my desk and cried for 15 minutes.

COHEN: Her research shows about 7,600 people in North Carolina were sterilized. Procedures here continued here into the 1970s, well after many states had stopped. So it's estimated about 2,000 victims are still alive. In later years, the focus targeted women on welfare, many of whom were African-American.

North Carolina has become the only state to take steps to compensate victims. For nearly 10 years, the state legislature has written reports, submitted bills, even heard testimony from victims.

LELA DUNSTON, STERILIZATION VICTIM: I wouldn't have mind having me a daughter, maybe two, maybe three. The state needs to award us because we got to carry on.

COHEN: But so far, these victims have received nothing more than apologies from Governor Bev Perdue.

GOV. BEVERLY PERDUE (D), NORTH CAROLINA: And I just came here as a woman, as a momma, and as a grand-momma and as governor of this state, quite frankly, to tell you it's wrong.

COHEN: Compensating victims could cost tens of millions of dollars during a time of budget cuts. States legislators like Representative Ruth Samuelson are worried about money.

REP. RUTH SAMUELSON, NORTH CAROLINA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: We had to set priorities, things like do we compensate eugenics victims or do we put classroom teachers in place? We had to make choices.

COHEN (on camera): It is possible that these victims will in the end walk away with nothing?

FULLER COOPER: That is a possibility if we don't have legislators who are willing to stand up for the victims.

COHEN (voice-over): Charles Holt knows he may never see a dime.

(on camera): So the state of North Carolina has said they're sorry. Is that enough?


COHEN: What more do they need to do?

HOLT: I think they should give us some compensation off of it.

COHEN (voice-over): 2012 could be the year the legislature acts. Charles Holt holds out hope for an award he says will fit the crime done to him more than four decades ago. (on camera): What's just horrible is they did this to person after person after person.

HOLT: Yes, ma'am. It's just disgusting.

COHEN: Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Linwood, North Carolina.


COOPER: It's hard to believe Americans were forcibly sterilized within the last 40 years.

Joining now me to discuss it is Paul Lombardo, author of "Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell."

Also, Areva Martin is a disability rights attorney and children's advocate.

And I appreciate both of you being with us.

Paul, it's stunning that this happened and in some places, I mean, anyone could suggest someone else should be sterilized.

PAUL LOMBARDO, AUTHOR, "THREE GENERATIONS, NO IMBECILES": Well, North Carolina was unusual in this sense. Most states required people to be in institutions, to be civilly committed before they could be operated on.

But North Carolina was wide-open. A social worker, a doctor, the sheriff, the truancy officer or a teacher, anyone could make this recommendation to the eugenics board.

COOPER: And it could be just because someone was promiscuous?

LOMBARDO: Certainly, sexual misbehavior was high on the list of things that people were sterilized for, not only in North Carolina, but in other states as well.

COOPER: Areva, what's the likelihood that anyone will actually get compensated? How do you even put a dollar figure on something like this?

AREVA MARTIN, DISABILITY RIGHTS ATTORNEY: You know, Anderson, when I hear this story, it just makes my blood boil.

And to hear that the legislators are saying, we're sorry, as if that's enough, that's just half the role here. We're talking about a matter of distributive justice. This is a matter of justice, plain and simply. The state took an aggressive step, intentional acts of violating these people.

Your most inalienable right, your right to be a parent, your right to reproduce, was taken away from these individuals simply because some board determined that they weren't fit, they weren't, you know, capable of producing the kind of children that the state deemed, you know, desirable.

So I hope that the legislature in this case steps up and compensates, makes whole these individuals who have suffered such an atrocity.

COOPER: Areva, who was disproportionately targeted? I'm guessing African-Americans, women.

MARTIN: African-American and women. There was this whole gender thing happening. It was thought that women in particular were incapable of making good decisions about their reproductive rights or that they were more promiscuous than men.

So, were women were targeted. And as we heard in the piece, African-Americans disproportionately impacted in a negative way by this state action. And that's what's so galling about this. This isn't private individuals. This is every branch of government, state legislature, the executive branch and the judicial branch, determining that certain individuals and those without a voice in our society were not, you know -- were not worthy of having children.

COOPER: And, Paul, this was happening in 33 states, including Puerto Rico.

North Carolina, are they the only ones even talking about compensation?

LOMBARDO: Well, as you showed in your graphic, there were more than 30 states that actually had these laws, but only seven of them have actually recommended an apology, taken a position at all.

There are still 20-some-odd states that haven't even gone that far. So the idea that the states will face this with compensation skips over the fact that many of them haven't even admitted that it happened.

COOPER: There's also, I guess, Paul, some who kind of view this as a left/right argument. To you, do you see it in those terms?

LOMBARDO: I don't see it that way either today or historically. Historically there were people from all different branches of not only government but all parts of the political spectrum that supported eugenics.

Every president from Teddy Roosevelt to Herbert Hoover and those in the middle, including people like Woodrow Wilson, Democrats, Republicans and independents, supported some kind of eugenics in the first third of the century.

Today, we have got almost everyone condemning it, but I see very few people coming forward and saying it's time to address this with some kind of compensation.

COOPER: Areva, is there any accurate number of how many people are still alive who were directly affected by this? In the piece, Elizabeth was reporting some 2,000 may be alive in North Carolina. MARTIN: That number is startling enough for North Carolina, Anderson.

But also what we do know is that reparations occurred with respect to Japanese interment camps. Reagan and then President Bush provided resources, $20,000 for individuals who were in those interment camps. And I would say that's the floor for these individuals, because that was displacement, that was loss of property.

We're talking about violation of people's bodies, being forced into surgery, being coerced, being told that if you don't sign for this surgery, you're going to be placed in an orphanage or, in the case of parents on welfare, that they were going to lose their benefits if they did not submit to this surgery. So the numbers are staggering.

And there's a case, Anderson, in Alberta, Canada, where a woman sued the government for wrongful sterilization and actually recovered over $700,000. And that caused that government to step up and make available close to $140 million to individuals, over 1,000, who had been, you know, sterilized by a similar government program.

So there's a little hope out there that North Carolina and other states -- and I recognize what Paul is saying, that some states haven't even said they're sorry -- but I think North Carolina has an opportunity to do something unique. And that's to say that these individuals matter, that you know, even though they were voiceless in society, that they are human beings, and they matter.

COOPER: It's -- again, it's just stunning. We'll continue to follow it. Areva Martin, appreciate it, and Paul Lombardo, as well, thank you.

LOMBARDO: Thank you.

COOPER: Just ahead tonight, Arab League monitors arrive in the city in the heart of Syria's uprising. But are they going to make any difference? Tens of thousands of protesters flood the streets of Homs to greet them. We'll show you how Syrian forces responded.

And the deadly Christmas fire in Stamford, Connecticut. What fire inspectors are now saying about the likely cause and why it spread just so fast.


COOPER: And Isha is here with a "360 News & Business Bulletin."

Isha, how are you doing?

ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good. Good to have you back.

COOPER: Glad to be here.

SESAY: The -- the arrival of monitors from the Arab League apparently is not stopping the Syrian government from launching assaults on protesters. Opposition groups say 39 People were killed today. Tens of thousands of Syrians flooded the streets of Homs, the city at the heart of this nine-month uprising. Witnesses report security forces fired bullets and teargas.

Mixed signals coming from the Obama administration about allowing Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh to come to New York for medical treatment. A White House official says the mission has been granted, but the State Department says no final decision has been made.

President Obama plans to ask Congress this week to raise the debt ceiling by more than $1 trillion to cover most of next year. The government is said to come within 100 billion of the current ceiling next week.

A drop in holiday sales at Sears and K-Mart means some locations will be closing their doors for good. The company that owns both chains says it will close more than 100 stores.

And Anderson, am string of fights caused chaos at the Mall of America in Minnesota. Shoppers posted video of the brawls on YouTube. At one point police reported ten separate fights. Witnesses say -- wait for it -- that the violence began after rumors spread that rappers Lil Wayne and Drake were visiting the mall. Police arrested nine People.

I give up on People.

COOPER: You give up on People?

SESAY: I do. Completely.

COOPER: Don't give up on People, Isha.

SESAY: I won't give up on you.

COOPER: We'll check back with you in a couple minutes.

Serious stuff ahead tonight. Word tonight of a possible cause in that tragic home fire in Connecticut that killed three young girls and their grandparents on Christmas morning. We've got the latest on what caused that fire.

And new information on a different Christmas tragedy, this one in Texas. Police are releasing the identities of the victims and the gunman in an apparent murder/suicide.

Those stories coming up.


COOPER: Other new details tonight about the tragic Christmas morning fire in Stamford, Connecticut. It wiped out five members of one family. Three young sisters and their two grandparents.

The city's fire chief says the cause appears to be accidental, was likely the result of someone in the house improperly discarding embers from the fireplace.

The three-story house was undergoing renovations. It's unclear whether working smoke detectors had been installed yet.

Dozens of firefighters tried to put out the flames. The loss of life was too much for even the most senior members of the department.


ANTONIO CONTE, INTERIM CHIEF, STAMFORD FIRE AND RESCUE: After 37 1/2 years, 38 years on the job, you're never prepared for anything like this. It's -- it's heartbreaking. I had to recall 70 firefighters today for debriefing, and most of them broke down.


COOPER: Our Deb Feyerick has more.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As fire raced through the Victorian home just before dawn Christmas morning, neighbors frantically called 911.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stamford, 911. What's the address of the emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a huge fire at the house next door to us. The whole house is on fire.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is the address, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're at 2241 Shippan Avenue. It's the house next door. There's a major fire, and there's three kids and a woman.

FEYERICK: Trapped inside the Stamford, Connecticut, home: grandparents Lomer and Pauline Johnson and their three granddaughters, 10-year-old Lily, and 7-year-old twins, Grace and Sarah.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was calling about a major, major fire with People in the house.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have the fire department on the way, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please, come quickly.

FEYERICK: The house was under renovation. It appears fireplace embers placed in an outdoor trash enclosure near the home ignited the blaze. Mom, Madonna Badger, managed to climb out onto scaffolding, frantically directing firefighters to the third floor, where she said her children were sleeping.

CONTE: The crew pushed through two rooms unable to find the children. They were pushed back by the intense heat and flames. FEYERICK: Grabbing two of the frightened girls, family friend Michael Borcina, seen here on his Facebook page, reached the second floor.

CONTE: The heat drove them to get separated, and it looks like one went back upstairs and another one was found with the grandmother.

FEYERICK: Grandfather Lomer Johnson had spent Christmas Eve playing Santa at Manhattan's Sak's Fifth Avenue. He managed to lead one of his granddaughters to the back of the house and climb onto a roof, then died before he could pull her to safety.

CONTE: Just inside the window that he came out of we found one of the young children. I guess there were a pile of books. Looks like she was placed on the books.

FEYERICK: The mother, a successful marketing executive, is said to be in shock. She was taken from the scene, sobbing, "My whole life is in that house."

CONTE: When you don't make that rescue that you failed -- and I don't think anybody wants to fail.


COOPER: And this was such a horrific story. It affects a lot of People who heard it. The house had to be torn down immediately, it was so unstable after the fire. Did the fact that it was a construction site have anything to do with it? Do we know?

FEYERICK: That's one of the things that investigators are looking into. Right now, they know that there were no apparent smoke detectors, no fire alarm system. They're looking to see what role the construction may have played. But it was really placing the embers where they were placed. The wind picked up, and it hit the house.

You have to keep in mind that, from the time the mom went to bed at about 3:30, it was an hour before the house was consumed. And ironically, it may have been the scaffolding that actually save hear life, because she was able to climb out onto that scaffolding.

COOPER: So someone moved embers or they got blown?

FEYERICK: They had a yuletide fire that they were doing. They were wrapping Christmas presents, because it was the night before Christmas. And it seems when they sort of emptied it out, put it in a bin, thinking that it was safer outside the house when in fact it wasn't.

COOPER: Oh, really? So they had actually taken the embers out.

FEYERICK: Correct. They thought it was safer. Yes.

COOPER: Fireplaces are always so tricky like that.

And the grandfather, he was actually able to get out but couldn't bring the little girl out?

FEYERICK: And this is what's so tragic. Because there was so much chaos in that house. You have to remember they were running through fire. They were in their pajamas. This fire was so intense it was actually pushing the firefighters out. They tried the third floor. They tried the second floor, but the heat was so intense.

He was able to get out of a window, thinking he was stepping onto a roof, but instead whether it was weakened by the flames, he stepped through the rafters. And the child, who was expecting him to reach into the home to pull her out, he simply -- it appears right now that he perished the moment he sort of stepped through that rafters. But they were found at the window on opposite sides.

COOPER: That's just so horrible. Deb Feyerick, appreciate the report.

Coming up next, we're learning more about the Christmas day massacre in Texas and the gunman dressed as Santa behind an apparent murder/suicide that wiped out an entire family.

Plus, what killed Heavy D? Doctors uncover the cause of the hip- hop legend's death. We'll have that.


SESAY: Hi, I'm Isha Sesay with a "360 Bulletin."

A 19-year-old California man faces one count of attempted murder in the shooting that paralyzed a U.S. Army soldier during a party to welcome him home. Ruben Jurado turned himself in yesterday.

Police have identified victims of that brutal Christmas day shooting in a Dallas suburb. Aziz Yazdanapah, dressed as Santa Claus, allegedly killed his estranged wife, their two children, and three other family members before turning the gun on himself. The couple was separated. Court records show the suspect had filed for bankruptcy and was still living in the family's foreclosed home.

The Los Angeles Coroner's Office says rapper Heavy D died of a blood clot in his lung caused by deep leg vein thrombosis. The 44- year-old Dwight Arrington Myers also suffered from heart disease. Heavy D died December 8 after collapsing at his Beverly Hills home.

And if you saw a "People" magazine cover of "Twilight" star Taylor Lautner and the headline "Out and Proud," blame Twitter and some bad PhotoShopping. The magazine says it's a fake.

And meet Mitch Gilbert, a Colorado real-estate businessman who gave the best Christmas gift ever to a complete stranger. Earlier this month Mitch found $10,000 in two sealed envelopes at Las Vegas Airport while waiting for his flight. He could have pocketed the cash but instead, he tracked down the rightful owner, an El Paso man who had dropped the money while running to catch a flight. He got his cash back in time for Christmas.

As for Mitch, he said he wanted to show his kids the right thing to do, and he'd also want someone to do the same for him.

And a programming note. We are just a few days from away from 2012. I'll be in Times Square, ringing in the new year with Anderson and Kathy Griffin. The party starts at 11 p.m. Eastern on Saturday night New Year's Eve. It is right here on CNN. And trust me: you do not want to miss it.

Up next, Anderson will have tonight's installment in our top ten "RidicuLists" of 2011 countdown. Tonight, No. 4 on the list, who happens to be our No. 1 favorite couple right here on "360." Romance haters, don't hate Courtney and Doug, because they're in love.


COOPER: Well, we've been counting down the top ten "RidicuLists" of the year. We asked you to vote for the top ten. You did. We appreciate you taking the time to do that.

Tonight at No. 4, it's our favorite couple. Back in July, Doug Hutchinson and Courtney Stodden made the "RidicuList" for the second time. I don't know how many times it's been already, but take a look.


COOPER: We told you about them before. You remember. Doug is the 51-year-old character actor. Perhaps you've seen him in "The Green Mile" or "Lost" or "The X Files." I have no memory of him.

And his bride is 16-year-old Courtney. For a moment, I thought it was "Court-nay," but it's not. It's Courtney. You might have seen her relaxing on the beach, wearing the American flag perhaps. Or perhaps singing in a boat with a dog that matches her bikini.


COURTNEY STODDEN, WIFE OF DOUG HUTCHISON (singing): When I go shopping, eyes are popping. When I'm a walking, they'll be talking.


COOPER: Yes. She's 16. Kids today.

So yes, there is a 35-year age difference. And no, Courtney hasn't graduated from high school yet. And yes, many have criticized their union. But the happy couple were on "Good Morning America" today, explaining their relationship and effectively putting all skepticism to rest.

It is a classic love story really: 53-year-old boy meets 16-year- old girl online, thus setting into motion a four-month online courtship. Sure, it sounds like the beginning of every episode of "To Catch a Predator," but that's where you're wrong, people. This online romance was different. This one was beautiful, and it was unique.


DOUG HUTCHISON, ACTOR: It's a really beautiful and unique way to get to know someone. Because we didn't have the distraction of...

STODDEN: The physicality.


COOPER: Mm-hmm. The physicality. I know what you're thinking. Where were this girl's parents, right? Well, they were all for it. Doug, being an upstanding guy, made sure of that. Here's what he told Courtney's parents.


HUTCHISON: If you are uncomfortable with it, I will respect you. And Courtney will respect you. And we will step back.


COOPER: Mm-hmm. Did you see that?

No, Courtney did not get grounded and her father, who's four years younger than Doug, did not file a restraining order. They said the parents gave their blessing. Her dad even walked her down the aisle. Let's hear it for the cool parents.

Luckily, Courtney didn't have to miss any chemistry tests or anything when she jetted off to Vegas to marry Doug -- Vegas, romantic -- because as it turns out, Courtney is home schooled via an online Christian academy. See? She's a very religious girl.


STODDEN: I was a virgin when I married him.

HUTCHISON: She was saving herself for me.

STODDEN: I knew that if I kept that, I would really be blessed with a beautiful gift. And God did. He blessed me with my soul mate.


COOPER: And in the presence of God and with her virginity that she somehow managed to hold onto for 16 whole years? Courtney married her 51-year-old soul mate. You know, Courtney's talked about morality before. Perhaps you remember her on her YouTube channel?


STODDEN: I have never done pornography. I never will. About myself, I am a Christian girl. I hold my faith very tightly. And I'm a virgin. And I plan to stay that way until I am married.


COOPER: And now she's married. She was married five months after she posted that video. Way to make a plan and stick to it. I bet she learned that in 4-H. OK. Sure. Some people are calling her husband a cradle robber, pervert, a dirty old man. Whatever. Those are just words. We know the truth.


HUTCHISON: People are welcome to their opinions. That's what the world is about. If they -- if they need to feel this way, that's theirs to hold. Not ours.


COOPER: Did you see that? Can we roll that again? And can someone please explain to me what is going on with Courtney in this clip?


HUTCHISON: People are welcome to their opinions. That's what the world is about. If they -- if they need to feel this way, that's theirs to hold.


COOPER: Are we frozen on this video? I know we're transfixed, but what was she doing with her face? It was like -- I almost think she just got roofied or something or maybe had some side effect from Botox or something. Please stop. Take that out. If I didn't already know better from Courtney herself.


STODDEN: My breasts are real. Everything about me is real. My hair is real. My teeth are real. My eyelashes are real. My breasts are totally real.


COOPER: It's all real. Did she mention her breasts? I think she mentioned her breasts twice. As real -- it's as real as the reality show that Courtney and Doug are considering. Oh, please. Or to put it another way, real head to toe.


STODDEN: It's real head to toe.

HUTCHISON: Courtney's plastic surgeon was God.


COOPER: God, thank you for take time out of your busy schedule to tend to Courtney's plastic surgery and home schooling and send her a pink dog and a soul mate, all before she even turned 17.

And romance haters, and yes, I'm talking to you, I beseech you once again: get onboard, get romantic and get real.


COOPER: We'll have No. 3 in our countdown tomorrow night.

That does it for us. Thanks watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.